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Kelowna  

Social worker a fraud?

Alanna Kelly

UPDATE: 3:25 p.m.

After a bombshell revelation that a provincial social worker lied about his education, the Ministry of Children and Family Development says it is working to develop a screening guide.

A growing number of lawsuits allege Robert Riley Saunders stole money from more than 40 vulnerable aboriginal youth while they were under his care. 

Exclusive documents obtained by Castanet include a resume and a forged University of Manitoba diploma.

The university confirms no one named Robert Riley Saunders ever graduated there. But, Saunders listed two U of M degrees on his resume – a bachelor of social work in 1994 and a bachelor of arts in psychology in 1992. 

Minister of Children and Family Development Katrine Conroy says the new information is disturbing. 

“I can’t tell you how disturbed I am by this information,” she said. “To think that anyone who intends to work with vulnerable people might lie about their qualifications is deeply upsetting.”

Front-line staff must be subject to a higher degree of scrutiny, Conroy said.

“As per Public Service Agency guidelines, currently all prospective employees are required to sign a statement confirming the accuracy and validity of information in their application package, including educational history.”

Local hiring managers with MCFD may verify an applicant’s degree by requesting an original or certified copy from the university.

Asked if Saunders' education was ever verified, a ministry spokesperson said they could not comment as the matter is covered under privacy regulations and is currently before the courts. 

Conroy said moving forward, the ministry is working to develop a screening guide for for child protection workers. 

“This process will include validation of an applicant’s credentials,” said Conroy.

Lawyer Michael Patterson said they are aware of new information but cannot comment.


ORIGINAL: 1:45 p.m.

A man who worked as a government social worker and allegedly stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from vulnerable aboriginal youth lied about his qualifications. 

Castanet exclusively received the bombshell allegation against Robert Riley Saunders on Wednesday.

Saunders worked for the Ministry of Children and Family Development in Kelowna and has been named in numerous lawsuits accusing him of stealing money from vulnerable children in his care. In some cases, his actions allegedly left children homeless.

The theft allegations date back to early 2008. Lawsuits have been filed in Kelowna, and a class-action has been launched in Vancouver.

Saunders claims he graduated from the University of Manitoba with a bachelor of social work and bachelor of arts in psychology degrees. However, "there is no record of that individual graduating from the University of Manitoba,” says university executive director of public affairs John Danakas.

Documents obtained by Castanet reveal false claims of education, and his resume states that he had worked for the ministry since November 1996. 

B.C.'s representative for children and youth said more than 40 kids may have been victimized by Saunders. Jennifer Charlesworth says she first became aware of the allegations in June 2018. 

“These kinds of cases are heartbreaking because it is one person’s actions that can cause tremendous harm to these young people,” she said. 

One woman says she was just 15 when she was under the care of Saunders. She says Saunders stole $40,000 from her, causing her to be homeless.

“I was put into one of the homeless shelters… While living at the shelter, I was sexually exploited. I got into very hard drugs to cope with the way I was feeling with the events going on in my life,” the woman said.

Many cases mirror each other, stating the plaintiffs were moved from foster homes into unstable residential or independent living arrangements. The youth would then be eligible for government payments, and Saunders is alleged to have opened a joint bank account with the child, and to have stolen the funds.

According to one suit, “Saunders sought out and exploited aboriginal high-risk youth because he knew that his supervisors and managers would not look too closely at their affairs.”

Saunders was terminated by the province last May.

Since then, he worked as an adult special educator at Okanagan College, but public affairs director Allan Coyle says Saunders' association with the college was ceased in late November.

Coyle added: "Privacy regulations prevent me from commenting on Mr. Saunders' qualifications for the role that he had been hired for ... he was not hired to be a social worker."

Vancouver lawyer Jason Gratl told CTV News about $400,000 to $500,000 was stolen from vulnerable children by Saunders.

No criminal charges have been laid, and the allegations have not been proven in court.



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